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2023 | Buch

Reassessing the Moral Economy

Religion and Economic Ethics from Ancient Greece to the 20th Century


Über dieses Buch

This book examines the concept of moral economy originally established by E.P. Thompson, focusing on the impact of religious norms on economic practice. With each chapter discussing a different empirical case study, the interrelations of the economy and religion are explored from antiquity through to the 20th century. The long-term trajectory and comparative perspective allows for moral economy to be seen in relation to ancient Greek commerce, medieval pawn-broking, Christian and Jewish economic ethics, urban social politics during the Plague, the Jesuit mission in Paraguay, the Ottoman Empire, religion in modern American capitalism, and Catholic attitudes toward taxation.

This book aims to provide insight into how moral thinking about the economy and economic practice has evolved from a long historic perspective. It will be relevant to students and researchers interested in economic history and cultural economics.


Chapter 1. Introduction: Reassessing Moral Economy
Previous research on moral economy has focused on modern and non-religious aspects of economic life, in line with the moral economists’ (Tawney, Polanyi, Thompson) original agenda. This volume aims to reassess the conceptual framework’s analytical potential in addressing these gaps. First, we want to take moral economy out of its container of modernity to assess its applicability in an epoch-spanning perspective from Ancient Greece to the twentieth century. The second aim is to connect religion to the debate on moral economy as one prominent source of moral norms that has informed and shaped actors’ perceptions of appropriateness, institutional development and practice in the economic sphere.
Martin Lutz, Tanja Skambraks

Antiquity and Middle Ages

Chapter 2. The Popular Morality of Ancient Greek Commerce
The concept of moral economy is both absent and present in the study of the economic history of Greco-Roman antiquity. While little use has been made of the catchphrase itself, the economic effects of ethics have long been among the most-debated topics in the field. So far, however, opposing sides in the debate about embeddedness shared a common understanding of ethics as either absent or inhibiting business. This chapter suggests a different understanding of the role of moral norms in profit-oriented economic activity. It sets out to systematically trace the religious roots of the popular morality of ancient Greek commerce. While Greek ritual focused on individual welfare, it was nonetheless guided by beliefs in divinely ordained justice. The reciprocal obligations towards the gods encompassed a collective obligation to enforce justice among humans as a realization of divinely ordained custom. This religious foundation of the moral economy of the Greek marketplace saw gradual changes, but no general decline from the archaic down to the hellenistic period.
Moritz Hinsch
Chapter 3. Early Medieval Property Transfers in Favour of the Church Between Religion and Economy
At least since Karl Polanyi, the idea has prevailed in large parts of research that pre-modern economies were characterised in a special way by an embeddedness of economic as well as ethical-religious spheres that was supposedly characteristic of them. However, the question of how exactly this interconnectedness was shaped has seldom been examined so far. Yet it can be analysed using the example of the property transfers by the laity in favour of churches, monasteries and bishoprics in the early Middle Ages. It becomes apparent that although theological motives such as securing of the salvation of the soul could be behind these transfers, pragmatic economic and strategic ownership considerations also came into play. Based on an evaluation of the Bavarian private charters from the eighth to tenth centuries this article will, firstly, establish which religious and economic motives the various individuals and ecclesiastical institutions involved in the property transfers pursued in these transactions, and, secondly, analyse which mutual influences the religious as well as the economic spheres exerted on each other. Against this background, a better understanding of the early medieval moral economy and the contemporary conceptions of the embeddedness between religion and economy can be gained.
Franziska Quaas
Chapter 4. Between Pietas and Usury: Dynamics of a Moral Economy in the Middle Ages
This chapter deals with the relationship between religion and economy in the Middle Ages, with a special focus on the operationalisation of the concept of moral economy. I argue that there are three interdependent levels characterising the premodern moral economy: economic ethics, canon law and economic practice. In the conceptual framework proposed, the processes of exchange and influence between these levels can be analysed using three analytical terms: (1) embeddedness, (2) innovations and (3) feedback. The applications presented here focus on the medieval theory of credit and interest (reflected in the canon law and sermons, treatises and regulations) as well as on the propagation and realisation of innovative economic thoughts linked to the Monti di Pietà (Christian pawnbroking houses) in late medieval Italy.
Tanja Skambraks
Chapter 5. Past the Limits of Usury: Jews and the Moral Economy of Moneylending in the Late Medieval German Territories
Scholarship on Jews and medieval economic thought is often devoted to the theological debate over usury. Beyond this debate, many of the daily economic interactions between Jews and Christians in the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire revolved around moneylending and complications arising from credit transactions. Recent literature has exposed the multiple and complex ways that Christians and Jews reacted to the changes brought on by the expanding economy as of the eleventh century, mainly in the context of the numerous discussions on usury as a moral and legal concern. However, this article will argue that the prevalence of credit transactions, in both interreligious as well as intra-religious exchange, brought with it other forms of ethical and moral concerns for both Jews and Christians. This article examines some of Jews’ moral concerns arising from the practice of extending credit, mostly focusing on moral conceptions regarding the boundaries of competition. With Jews embedded in the legal and cultural traditions of medieval Christian society, their attitudes toward economic morality will be discussed within the wider context of Christian cultural norms.
Aviya Doron
Chapter 6. Fiscality, Debt, and Moral Economy: The View from Florentine Civic Chronicles
This article explores how civic chroniclers in the Florentine Republic represented institutional developments in the city’s funded debt, the Monte Comune. It explores how late medieval and early modern history writers represented communal fiscal policy and citizen-creditor behaviour within broader moral and political concerns. The market for Monte credits was a contentious area of economic activity that provoked an intense debate over its legitimacy amongst theologians and lawyers. This chapter shows how the usury controversy impacted Florentine historiography. Civic chronicles provide evidence for the lay reception and understanding of the debate. The first part of this contribution focuses on Matteo Villani and his model for representing the consolidation of the Florentine public debt and the creation of a market for government credits. In the second part of the article, the chroniclers Villani and Baldassare Bonaiuti’s concerns over price, yield, investor behaviour, and political policy in the market for credits are compared with that of the humanist historians Leonardo Bruni and Benedetto Varchi. The final part of the chapter shows how writers both described the ways in which the debts attracted both popular resentment as well as relatively wide levels of citizen investment, as creditors looked for stable investments connected to the marriage market and charitable provision. Moral economy offers a prism through which to understand how late medieval and early modern historiography framed ethical concerns on the social impact of public credit, connecting taxation and markets to religion, moral philosophy, and social values.
Giorgio Lizzul

Early Modern Period

Chapter 7. The Moral Economy of Epidemics: Emergency, Charitable Institutions and Poor Relief in Early Modern Italian Plague Regulations
While scholars of medieval and early modern epidemics have mostly focused on the repressive measures deployed by authorities in order to hold marginal sectors of society in check, these were not the only way in which the powerful interacted with the lower sorts. In fact, something like a welfare system of extraordinary relief provisions was often implemented, going from simple almsgivings to the granting of special rights to the poor. The logic behind it was inspired by what I propose to style “the moral economy of epidemics”, i.e., a set of mainly religious but also legal, economic and medical values, somehow shared between the rulers and the ruled, and which, to some extent at least, compelled the former to help the latter in time of epidemic distress. Using the experiences of early modern Italian cities as a case study, I start with a methodological discussion of E. P. Thompson’s notion and its range of applicability; I then list some of the most relevant forms of aid authorities granted to the hardest-hit sections of the population; finally, I proceed to disentangle the different and sometimes conflicting values that explicitly or implicitly underlay these policies, while also allowing their recipients some room for agency.
Lorenzo Coccoli
Chapter 8. Moral Economists: The Jesuit Mission in Paraguay and the Idea of Economic Growth in Early Modern Times
This essay will investigate the role of the Society of Jesus, in particular in the Paraguayan province, in the development of semantics on economic growth that emerged in the early modern period. Our thesis proposes that the Jesuits established with their ideas of mission a hitherto unknown concept of perpetual growth within the premodern economy. First, we will show how the Jesuits and capitalism have been linked in historiography. Then we will discuss the concept of moral economy and the benefits of using this approach to study the Jesuit’s ideas of growth. The third and fourth chapters will present the connections between the concepts of mission and economic growth and will describe how the Jesuits in Paraguay implemented these ideas in their economic practices.
David Bete, Philip Knäble
Chapter 9. Profit Due to Christian Behaviour: The Moral Economy of the Moravian Church in the Eighteenth Century
The section refutes the prevailing view in research that Christian norms no longer had any significance in eighteenth-century trade practices. To this end, the section analyses the moral economy of the Moravian Church, a Pietistic denomination that spread rapidly throughout the Protestant part of the Atlantic World in the eighteenth century. The Moravians considered trade to be a beneficial service to their fellow man, so all trading activities had to be in accordance with Christian norms. Both central and local governing bodies took special care to ensure that individual Moravians did not seek excessive profits but charged fair prices for their goods and services. It was the goal of the governing bodies to ensure that no Moravian jeopardised his (or her) salvation or that Jesus Christ turned away from the Moravian Church. In the commercial practice of the late eighteenth century, the moral economy often proved to be a competitive advantage for Moravians. In particular, people who lived in the vicinity of the Moravian settlements considered the merchants and craftsmen working there to be especially trustworthy and preferred to buy from them.
Thomas Dorfner

Modern Period

Chapter 10. Negotiating Religion, Moral Economy and Economic Ideas in the Late Ottoman Empire: Perspectives of Peasants and the Intelligentsia
E. Attila Aytekin
Chapter 11. Leading a “Simple” Life in Modern Capitalism. The Moral Economy of Mennonite Consumption in Mid-twentieth-century America
The concept of simplicity (Einfachheit) is crucial to understanding the way Mennonites engaged in the modern economy. Notions of simplicity derived from biblical interpretations informed the moral values as to what kind of consumption was deemed appropriate for a church member, and what was considered “worldly”, i.e. against God’s will. The chapter shows how these moral values were integrated in Mennonite church regulations and offered an institutional setting designed to constrain individual consumption choices.
Martin Lutz
Chapter 12. Tax Morale and the Church: How Catholic Clergies Adapted Norms of Paying Taxes to Secular Institutions (1940s–1950s)
Paying taxes is a field of economic activity that has always been highly morally charged: the question of who pays how much or can avoid or evade the prescribed payments is always closely related to debate about a fair societal distribution of burdens. In the process of moralisation, therefore, faith communities such as the Catholic Church also repeatedly seized the floor to propagate certain norms. The article examines the contributions of theologians from Spain, the USA and West Germany in the 1940s and 1950s. It concludes that the norms of taxation they propagated differed greatly depending on the institutional and economic frameworks within which they operated. The analysis proves taxation to be a field of economic action and societal dispute where economics and morality are indissolubly interconnected.
Korinna Schönhärl
Chapter 13. “Resort City? Why What Happened to Las Vegas, Sin City?”: Suburban America, Religious Groups, and the Moral Economy of Gambling in Las Vegas, 1945–1969
The chapter focuses on how the Las Vegas casinos between 1945 and 1969 constituted a localized moral economy of gambling. Using letters from gamblers to the casino executives, internal memos of the casinos, press articles, and archived oral history interviews, it shows how the mostly white, suburban middle class American visitors reconciled their social conservative views and their faith with gambling and how religious organizations participated in moralizing Las Vegas. It will also investigate how gambling entrepreneurs, many from marginalized religious and ethnic backgrounds, claimed their citizenship by running casinos as successful, legitimate businesses.
Paul Franke


Chapter 14. Reassessing Moral Economies. Concluding Thoughts
“The concept of “moral economy” has become one of the key concepts in recent attempts to bridge the gap between cultural history and economic history and to think in a new way about economic structures and practices. This paper takes the case studies of this volume to think about the concept of “moral economy” from a praxeological perspective. It argues that moral norms and ideas could be used in two ways: on the one hand, it could refer to economic practices that became attached to moral meanings and restrictions. On the other hand, the examples in this volume show that morality is not only a restrictive force that limits or prohibits certain economic practices, but could also become an enabling and supporting factor that could be used strategically by economic actors.
Benjamin Möckel
Reassessing the Moral Economy
herausgegeben von
Tanja Skambraks
Martin Lutz
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